Let’s Work Together to Conserve and Protect Our Public Lands

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, UT

The Conference of Western Attorneys General recently voted to approve a report that finds that the ongoing attempts by the state of Utah to take control of millions of acres of federal land in their State are on shaky ground at best and unlikely to be successful. The State of Utah has been planning a lawsuit against the United States that experts estimate could cost well over 10 million dollars.

The report is the product of two years of work and legal analysis and was drafted by the Attorneys General of these states, comprised of seven republicans, three democrats and one independent. Members from Wyoming, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington participated. This bipartisan report is both extraordinary and remarkable and great news for those who have concerns about the many ongoing battles across the nation to cast federal management actions in conservation areas as “federal overreach”. The National Wildlife Refuge Association applauds the excellent and well thought out work done by the Attorneys General who clearly came to their conclusions through analyzing a huge body of legal cases and precedence, as well as the Constitution of the United States, instead of bowing to political pressure.

The Attorneys General relied upon U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have consistently and repeatedly found that the Property Clause of the Constitution gives the right to federal agencies and bureaus to manage the federal lands that the United States owns and that the Property Clause has no limitations.

In a number of States over the last few years there have been many attempts to cast federal management for conservation purposes on national wildlife refuges, national parks, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service as federal overreach. These attempts are ill conceived and ignore all the benefits that federal lands bring to the States and the American people. Arguments for State verses Federal control and management are a misnomer and ignore the many benefits and contributions to local communities that these lands afford. Our public lands attract hundreds of millions of visitors each year and are the foundation for America’s $650 billion outdoor recreation economy. For instance, the National Wildlife Refuge System supports 35,000 jobs and contributes more than $340 million in annual tax revenue. 

What is needed is collaborative landscape management between the federal government and the States and local communities and there are many positive examples. Sage grouse initiatives that protect the species as well as the needs of ranching communities have recently been wildly successful. Landscape partnerships (e.g. Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, Restore New Mexico and Tread Lightly). Another example is the clean air and clean water which are almost taken for granted today but have actually improved significantly over the last 30 years because of management efforts by the Federal Government.

The Refuge System alone contributes over $33 billion in ecosystem services to the American people. For example, refuges act as natural storm buffers for communities, control flooding, sequester carbon, and improve air and water quality. 

The national discussion should be about successful wildlife management and not arguments about Federal versus State rights. We all need to be about the work of getting it done and getting it done right in protecting habitat and species across the landscape and not keep spinning our wheels on complex time consuming and incredibly expensive litigation that always ends up right where the western states’ Attorneys General have landed on their powerful and well thought out analysis.

In Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service have recently promulgated regulations that define and clear up jurisdictional differences between the State’s intensive management mandate and Federal laws. These laws require biological integrity, diversity and environmental health on units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. These regulations among other things make it clear when and how refuges may be closed and codifies when and if predator control should be allowed or prohibited.

Alaska currently plans to litigate based on State rights and jurisdiction arguments. Alaska should consider this Western Attorneys General report before deciding to move forward on a lawsuit that will potentially cost upwards of $2 million. Alaska and Utah aren’t the only States where these kinds of divisive arguments are occurring. All of us ought to be working together on protecting our national resources instead of wasting dollars that could be utilized in positive outcomes instead of on legal fights that cost all parties.

The National Wildlife Refuge Association is very appreciative of the work done by the Western Governors Association and their legal counsel for providing this report – it could not have come at a better time. It is our fervent hope both the States and the Federal Government will review it closely and choose to move forward in more collaborative efforts in the future and concentrate on what is truly important, good resource management and conservation management efforts that benefit us all.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.refugeassociation.org/2016/10/lets-work-together-to-conserve-and-protect-our-public-lands/

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